The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, April 27, 2015


So many wonders, so little time                                           
What past has Japan and Indonesia shared? Most would think in terms of conflict and car sales, yet the links go back centuries.
Despite the World War II occupation and disputes over investment culminating in the 1974 anti-Japanese riots when Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was in Jakarta, business has bloomed.  Japan is now Indonesia’s foremost trading partner – and friend.
A recent BBC World Service survey found 82 per cent of Indonesians polled really like the Japanese. Maybe they understand there’s a longer history. If so this is their book.
The two nations’ relationship pre-dates the arrival of the colonial Dutch in 1595, but Java Essay starts 45 years later when the Japanese government issued its Sakoko [National Isolation] Edict and began expelling Christians.
Among the deportees was Haru, or Jeronima Marino, a Catholic teen.  Her parents were Nicholas Marino, an Italian ship’s pilot and Maria, a Japanese.  After a two month 3,700 kilometer journey Haru, her mother and a sister arrived in Batavia [now Jakarta] at the start of 1640.
The colonialists were already employing Japanese as mercenaries and traders with the Dutch East India Company, VOC.  One was Simons Simonsen who married Haru five years after she arrived.
Like his bride he’d been born in Nagasaki Province to a European father.  The couple had three sons and four daughters.  Haru died aged 72, unusual longevity for the times.
There’s much more to know about this and other stories thanks to the scholarship of Masatoshi [Toshi] Iguchi, an unlikely person to develop a deep interest in Java.
The man is a polymath. Trained as a macromolecular scientist he received a PhD in textile engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1966.  He then spent most of his career in government research laboratories.
In 1994 he was seconded to a lab in Bandung for two years. After retirement and several prizes he got a fellowship for further research in Bogor. By then he’d been seduced by ‘the dramatic history and beautiful culture of Java.’  So it was farewell polymers and welcome ethnography.
 In 2004 he translated the 1921 and 1929 travelogues of Marquis Tokugawa into English as Journeys to Java.  In 2006 it was published in Indonesian as Perjalanan Menoejoe Djawa by the Institut Teknologi Bandung.
Dr Toshi describes the Marquis as ‘an enlightened liberal Japanese aristocrat who was educated as a biologist and historian.’ It’s possible he may also have been spying on Dutch military strengths as did other pre-war Japanese visitors, though Dr Toshi thinks this most unlikely.   
Dr Toshi’s Java Essay was released in Japanese in 2013.  Now aged 77 he’s produced an English version, updated, added more photos and for good measure typeset the copy.  In e-mail correspondence he explained that the task would have been too difficult for others as it includes words and characters in English, Dutch, Indonesian, Javanese, Japanese and Chinese. 
His style is occasionally a little old fashioned.  Companions include ‘Mr AB’ and a curator called ‘Mrs E’ [later revealed as Raden Ayhu Ekowati Sundari], giving the book the feel of a Sherlock Holmes novel or a list of Indonesian police suspects. 
Starting a sentence with:  ‘Let us depart from the world of fiction’ is quaint, but creates an intimacy that bonds the reader to this self-described ‘humble scientist’. 
In keeping with his modesty Dr Toshi doesn’t like his photo taken.  A pity; it should be circulated among Indonesian tour guides with the caption: Beware!  Double check facts if this guy’s in your group.
 He queries the naming of the Arjunawiwaha [Arjuna’s victory] statue at Jakarta’s Independence Square because: ‘Krishna does not appear in the poetic Kakawin Arjunawiwaha  composed as a branch tale of the Ramayana in 14th century Java.’ Arjuna is a character in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Kakawin is a narrative poem.
He finds a collection of fossils ‘really fantastic’ and when stopping for a meal between sites uses the time to develop a treatise on 17th century potato exports from Jagatara [Jakarta] to Japan. He eventually deduces that the first spud arrived in Nagasaki on a Portuguese ship in 1576.
On encountering a bust of the plump-lipped Gajah Mada, the Prime Minister hero of the Majapahit Era in East Java’s Trowulan Museum, Dr Toshi asks: ‘Does not his face look treacherous?’  Insult or insight?
The latter, for the Japanese scholar knows the little publicized tragedy of the Field of Bubat when a wedding party was betrayed and massacred.
In 1357 the Sundanese Royal Family brought Princess Citra Rashmi aka Pitaloka, to Trowulan to marry the Majapahit King Hayam Wuruk, hoping to cement ties between East and West Java.
But Gajah Mada had other ideas.  He said the Princess would not be a queen but a concubine. Despite being heavily outnumbered the outraged Sundanese refused. The guests were slaughtered, and the princess suicided to avoid dishonour.  Not a tale everyone wants told.
Quibbles are few. The bibliography is a jumble. The book jumps around instead of progressing through eras, which doesn’t make for smooth reading. Nor does the use of footnotes.
It’s as though Dr Toshi has so many more wonders to encounter that there’s too little time left for the leisure of structure. He’s been to Indonesia eight times in the past 11 years, the latest this February.  He hopes to return next year
This is the book serious visitors to Java should consult through the index when planning a tour.  The Internet is full of sites recommending tourist attractions, but only Java Essay has the richness and detail that encourages further inquiry and admiration.
For this we thank a Japanese scientist laden with curiosity who came by chance, stepped out of his discipline, and enlarged our appreciation of this extraordinary land.
Java Essay                                                                                                                                               by Masatoshi Iguchi                                                                                                                         Published by Matador UK, 2015                                                                                                        326 pages plus bibliography and index
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 April 2015

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